Soon after Netflix offered movies and, to a lesser extent, television programs on its newborn streaming service in 2007, I dropped cable and used Netflix and the occasional broadcast reception for film, shows, and news. The absence increased my work productivity and, when I later became a television writer, never hindered my newfound career. (The screeners sent by networks helped, too.) Fast forward a decade when, after installing a brand new cable receiver and personal DVR, I caught a preview for something called Houdini & Doyle on Fox.
The teaser showcased House‘s Michael Weston, Episodes‘ Stephen Mangan and Canadian newcomer Rebecca Liddiard, and looked like something out of The X-Files. This caught the attention of my prepubescent, obsessed-with-ghosts-and-aliens brain. I still had no idea what in the hell I was watching, but it felt too much like Chris Carter’s self-maligned classic to pass up. Harry Houdini’s (Weston) world-famous skepticism matched with Arthur Conan Doyle’s (Mangan) devoted spiritualism and the first female constable, Adelaide Stratton’s (Liddiard) detective work? Combining all three to solve paranormal mysteries in a police procedural set at the beginning of the 20th century? Yes, please.
In some ways it sounds like every other detective show on the current Fox lineup, which likes to pair cop characters with not-so-cop-like counterparts. (Lucifer, anyone?) Maybe that’s why I hadn’t heard of it specifically, as its nuts and bolts sounded a little too much like everything else. Some outlets reviewed Houdini & Doyle, and we published notes about its series order and American premiere, but there wasn’t much attention beyond that, nothing akin to what network favorites like Bones and Wayward Pines enjoy. Fox didn’t seem to care whether or not viewers knew Houdini & Doyle existed. Neither did the viewers who, aside from a dedicated core group, rewarded the program with what Variety dubbed a “weak start” that, five weeks later, hasn’t changed much.
Not that any of this mattered. All I cared about was that Houdini & Doyle — a series in which two dramatized versions of otherwise very real figures investigated murderous spectral nuns and England’s own Jersey Devil — would be airing a new episode that night. Plus, since Fox had put previous entries on Hulu and I had a few hours to kill, the rest of my Monday was lost to a pseudo-Victorian world rife with historical inaccuracies. It’s filled with errors and embellishments big and small, like that the performer and the author’s famous friendship began in 1901, almost 20 years before they actually met. Many of the show’s most damning reviews professed apathy about this and other incongruities, yet kept mentioning them as evidence for Houdini & Doyle‘s failure. Again, like the aforementioned weak start, I didn’t care. I just wanted to watch what everyone was calling The Victorian X-Files.
So I did. And you know what? It isn’t perfect. Weston often plays Houdini as the young, brash American — a stereotype typical of non-American English language productions that carries as much realistic weight as the popular British-accented villain in American films and television. Meanwhile, Mangan’s Doyle cannot seem to reconcile his literary oeuvre’s logical creation, Sherlock Holmes, with his own will to believe in the paranormal, and Liddiard’s Stratton too often feels like a last-minute addition. As the writers attempt to connect all 10 episodes with a mysterious conspiracy involving Stratton’s dead husband, political extremists, and the title characters’ male curiosity, its payoff (if any) remains to be seen.
Yet Houdini & Doyle is still a fun show, and depending on your personal tastes, it might even be a good one. My penchant for police procedurals and all things X-Files drew me to the series as soon as I heard of it, and now that I’m all caught up, it’s safe to say I would have started watching it from the beginning if I’d known about it in May.
The individual stories told in “In Manus Dei,” “Spring-Heel’d Jack” and “Bedlam” offer audiences finely groomed packages that don’t necessarily require constant vigilance or binge-watching for complete understanding. Like The X-Files, “Spring-Heel’d Jack” presents the heroes with a case that they do solve, though viewers are treated to a brief bout of omniscience regarding the true nature of its monster-of-the-week. “Bedlam” breaks the mold because, as writer and co-creator David N. Titcher explains, it’s the “weird” one that doesn’t stick to formula. As for “In Manus Dei,” its approach to spirituality, faith and skepticism is one of the sweetest treatments of the subject in recent memory. It fairly depicts the ups and downs of devotion, agnosticism and skepticism alike, and never picks a side by the time the credits roll. If Titcher has his way, Houdini & Doyle will never settle the matter of belief one way or another.
“I’m the believer in the writers room. We have a bunch of skeptics and I’m the one guy holding the fort,” he laughs. “I’ve seen more furious arguments about belief, about this particular topic, than anything. Than Republicans versus Democrats. Because this is more personal to people.”
This is especially true of Mangan’s Doyle, whose attachment to the supernatural revolves around his sick wife Touie (Louise Delamere). She remains bedridden with tuberculosis and, for much of the series, comatose as a result. Doyle tries to do good by her with their children and his professional life, but whenever an opportunity like the suspect faith healer in “In Manus Dei” presents itself, he cannot resist the urge to heal — if not communicate with — his wife.
“It’s sort of the most important question that we face in the world — what happens when you die? The arguments will be furious,” says Titcher, “but it just seems like we’d all want there to be something more.” It’s a great question, and considering how Houdini & Doyle has addressed its many prompts and possibilities without constructing an all too familiar soapbox, maybe that’s another reason audiences haven’t been tuning in. Because Titcher, co-creator David Hoselton and executive producer David Shore don’t offer any concrete resolutions. That, and a lack of publicity.
“All my friends hadn’t heard of it unless I’d told them about it,” Titcher admits. “We’re really trying to get the word out, because Fox has thrown us into the deep end and we’re hoping we can swim.”
After 30 years of toying around with the idea of a Houdini & Doyle movie, Titcher brought his idea about portraying an embellished, fictional version of the two men’s real life friendship to the small screen. The result? A Transatlantic co-production between the U.K.’s ITV, Canada’s Global and Fox that, according to the creator of The Librarian franchise, is “an international hit, but not in America.” Hence why Titcher is hoping to “pick it up a little bit more” in the States. He isn’t wrong, for Houdini & Doyle scored 912,000 viewers (7.1 percent share) for its March 13 British premiere on ITV. These numbers paled in comparison to broadcast competitors like the BBC, and subsequent episodes were shown on ITV Encore, a satellite-only channel, which knocked its average numbers down 5.7 percent. Yet non-American audiences seem to love everything about this weird-yet-familiar show, and if you’re like me — with a taste for weirdness, mismatched partners, and a colorful, if inaccurate, depiction of the past — you might too.
Houdini & Doyle airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on Fox. Until then, here’s a preview of “Strigoi”…